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Chicago Bulls 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Chicago Bulls.

Basketball Insiders

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The Chicago Bulls made significant changes this offseason by trading Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks (in exchange for Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant) and letting Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol leave as free agents. After making some other moves to clear cap space, the Bulls then signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo to supplement Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler. The result of all these moves is a roster filled with talent that doesn’t fit together perfectly. Figuring out how to maximize the team’s talent will fall on the shoulders of second-year head coach Fred Hoiberg, who struggled to get his team to buy in to his system last season, resulting in a disappoint 42-40 campaign and their first time missing the postseason seven seasons.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Chicago Bulls.

FIVE GUYS THINK

As previously constructed, the Bulls weren’t going anywhere in the postseason anytime soon, which apparently is why they made wholesale changes this past offseason, shipping off Derrick Rose and bidding adieu to Joakim Noah. In their place the team welcomes Rajon Rondo and Robin Lopez, which actually isn’t too big a downgrade considering injury histories and current production. Of course, what really matters in Chicago this year is the arrival of Dwyane Wade, which should at its best be a ton of fun and at its worst another signing of a former star free agent brought in past his prime (Did he really have to choose Ben Wallace’s old uniform number?). The Bulls are probably better than everybody’s giving them credit for, but they’re not any closer to winning a championship than they were a season ago. The makeup is different, but the outcome looks destined to remain unchanged.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Joel Brigham

The Bulls were having a bit of a rough summer, losing Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah in free agency, before securing signatures from Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade on new deals. Rondo and Wade have since publicly stated that the Bulls are All-Star guard Jimmy Butler’s team to nip any potential confusion in the bud, but the unit still has plenty of questions. Can a lineup featuring Butler, Rondo and Wade effectively create enough offensive spacing? Can Nikola Mirotic find consistency and take the next step in a larger role? Is head coach Fred Hoiberg the man for the job and how is his relationship with Butler? The Bulls are a hard squad to peg, but you can count on them being competitive on most nights.

4th Place – Central Division

– Lang Greene

Fred Hoiberg, who is entering his second season as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, likes to run a high paced offense that can spread the court with shooting. However, Hoiberg may have to adapt his preferred style of play after the Bulls went out and signed Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade this offseason. Let me be clear – Rondo and Wade are two of the more talented guards in the league and can help the Bulls this upcoming season. But adding two ball-dominant guards to a team that already features Jimmy Butler may be problematic. These three players may find the right balance of sharing the ball handling duties, but that alone won’t solve the fact that Wade has shot 28.4 percent from the three-point line and Rondo has shot just 28.9 percent from distance over their respective careers. The Bulls have ways to offset these issues with versatile players like Nikola Mirotic on the roster, but this will be a challenging season for Hoiberg.

5th Place – Central Division

–  Jesse Blancarte

The marriage between Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade will be interesting to observe. Wade thrived with LeBron James and is certainly a team-first player. Butler, though, lacks the court vision and overall game impact that James does, so I am very interested in observing their dynamic. Rajon Rondo has always been an interesting case, and since he has never met a coach who he liked taking directives from, I’m inclined to think there will be a fair amount of fireworks in Chicago this season. Like the New York Knicks, this thing can thrive nicely or it can blow up right in Fred Hoiberg’s face. I’m willing to bet on the former, though. Without question, the Central Division will be the toughest in the Eastern Conference. The Cleveland Cavaliers will win the day and I expect the Indiana Pacers to place second. After that, I think that Hoiberg, Wade, Rondo and Butler will find a way to work things out and with a supporting cast that features some nice young players, there’s reason to be optimistic. Bobby Portis has emerged as a figure of interest and you can’t ignore the potential of Doug McDermott, Tony Snell and the already productive Nikola Mirotic. The Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks will both have their fair share of wins this season, but I think I like the Bulls to place higher than them – assuming Dwyane Wade stays healthy.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Moke Hamilton

When I look at this Bulls team, I just have trouble figuring out how all of their pieces will fit together. As much as I like Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, they don’t really complement each other well on the floor and their supporting cast isn’t great either. I’m not a big fan of Rajon Rondo and I scratched my head when they made that move. Looking at the Central Division, I have Cleveland, Indiana and Detroit remaining in the playoffs and Milwaukee making significant strides this year. It seems strange to say, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Bulls finished this year fifth in the division. The Central is just that tough, so adjusting to new focal points, dealing with injuries and having other issues surface could sink an otherwise talented team relatively quickly.

5th Place – Central Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Jimmy Butler

Both Butler and Dwyane Wade should average somewhere in the neighborhood of 18-21 PPG this season, but considering Butler’s age and relative health, there’s a much better chance that he ends up scoring more total points this season than anybody else on the team. What Chicago does on offense this year has been discussed at length this offseason, but whatever discord there may be among three alpha dogs that can’t shoot threes, Butler’s offensive strengths are still the type of skills any team would kill to have. Butler attacks the rim with precision, draws fouls and knocks down a number of tough midrange shots with ease, even when they’re contested. He’s the most athletic and well-rounded scorer on the team, which is a big reason why he’s made two All-Star teams in a row.

Top Defensive Player: Jimmy Butler

As a member of the All-Defensive Second Team last year (and the two years before that), Butler also is the uncontested best defensive player on the team this year. While his 1.6 SPG weren’t necessarily elite, his smothering defense on the perimeter, even on forwards much bigger and stronger than him, remains his calling card on that end of the floor.  He’s incredibly intelligent on defense and uses every pound of his muscle and will to shut down opposing players. His on-ball defense is the kind of thing that can save games, and while he has slipped a little on D the last couple of years as he’s ramped up his offensive game, he’s still the best all-around defender the Bulls have.

Top Playmaker: Rajon Rondo

Even though he played for a really bad Sacramento Kings last year, Rondo still managed to lead the league in assists. Now he brings that court vision to a Chicago team that, in theory, has more offensive weapons around him to keep those assist numbers high. He’s not the athlete he used to be, but he’s still a smart, crafty player that can carve into defenses and create for his teammates. If players like Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Denzel Valentine can knock down their fair share of three-pointers this year and keep defenses honest, there’s no reason Rondo shouldn’t be as effective as he always has been at making things happen on the offensive end of the floor.

Top Clutch Player: Dwyane Wade

With Miami, Wade almost always has been the guy to take the final shots in games, and that shouldn’t change in Chicago. In the final minute of regular season games in Miami last season, Wade had a usage rate of 50.8 percent, and in the 15 games that were decided by three points or fewer in that final minute, Wade shot 8-for-18 from the floor, 5-for-5 from the free-throw line and had zero turnovers. He does this heavily guarded, undersized, and with time winding down. He’s used to having the ball in his hands late in games and loves the big moment. That won’t change in Chicago.

The Unheralded Player: Taj Gibson

At 31 years old, Gibson is completely off the career arc of Chicago’s young core, which has to exist in life after Wade and Rondo, and that means there’s a really good chance that Gibson’s name will show up in more trade rumors than anybody in the Eastern Conference this year. Despite that, in 55 starts last season he averaged 9.2 PPG and 7.3 RPG, and he’s an incredible pain in the rear end for opponents because of how hard he plays and how tough he makes it for his opposition to score. He no longer has the upside he once did, but he’s still a grinder. Those trade rumors will exist because there will be teams legitimately asking about his availability all season long.

Top New Addition: Dwyane Wade

While Wade will turn 35 years old this year and clearly is past his prime in terms of athleticism and health, the Bulls are still adding a 12-time All-Star and 3-time NBA champion to their roster who just so happens to hail from Chicago. Maybe his high usage muddies up an already crowded backcourt, but his positive locker room presence and clear desire to help the city as a whole make him a really fun addition to a team that very well could have been staring a rebuilding project in the face had he not decided to play in the Windy City. There’s no telling how this all will play out, but at the very least Wade has kept Chicago both relevant and interesting. That, frankly, is more than Derrick Rose had done the last few years there.

– Joel Brigham

WHO WE LIKE

1. Robin Lopez

Bulls fans are going to miss Joakim Noah, but Robin Lopez, who actually kind of looks like Noah if you really squint your eyes, could actually be considered an upgrade, at least compared to the version of Noah we saw last season. Lopez is a strong rim protector and one of the game’s best offensive rebounders, and his goofy little hook-shot actually is one of the more effective post moves in the game. Only Nikola Vucevic took and made more hooks than Lopez last season, and he’s showing no signs of retiring the move. Even better, Lopez is a fun guy to have around and should help rejuvenate a locker room that was a graveyard last season. Benny the Bull’s replacement in Chicago already is quivering in fear of the dreaded Mascot Hunter.

2. Nikola Mirotic

It’s easy to forget, but just two seasons ago Mirotic finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, so while he had a frustrating sophomore campaign it’s not as if the guy is completely without skill. The problem last season was that the league wised up to his patented pump-fake, and when defenders stopped biting it changed Mirotic’s ability to be effective offensively. One has to believe he worked on that over the offseason, and as the projected starter at the four in Chicago’s revamped lineup, he’s sure to get more than his fair share of open shots with Butler, Wade and Rondo collapsing defenses with their penetration. Rose tended to miss Mirotic on offense, and Pau Gasol’s defensive shortcomings tended to highlight Mirotic’s. Rondo and Lopez will change things drastically for Mirotic on both ends of the floor, which means he could very well be in for a huge 2016-2017 campaign.

3. Jerian Grant

Right now the former Notre Dame stud is just a backup to Rondo, but as a pick-and-roll specialist in a Fred Hoiberg offense he’s going to have every opportunity to be successful this season given the opportunity. For an offense that wants to get out and run, Grant will be much more effective than he was in New York’s Bermuda Triangle last year. He might not get All-Star votes right away, but Chicago’s a much better fit for the player who looks set to take over starting point guard duties the minute Rondo moves on from Chicago in a year or two. Plus, he’s Horace Grant’s nephew. That’s enough for Chicago to love the kid all by itself.

4. Jimmy Butler

He’s Chicago’s best all-around player and a two-time All-Star with loads of talent and charisma. While he’s not getting the leadership role he would have had in a world without Wade and Rondo, he is being given the opportunity to continue playing for a competitive playoff team, which appears to be more valuable to him given how hard he recruited the aforementioned veteran guards this past summer. Despite the influx of new backcourt talent, he still seems like a shoe-in for another All-Star selection, and at age 26 the best is yet to come.

5. Dwyane Wade

It’s not often teams are able to pry away sure-thing Hall-of-Famers in free agency, but that’s exactly what Chicago managed in stealing Wade away from Miami this offseason. The former NBA Finals MVP isn’t as valuable as he once was, but he showed in the 2016 postseason how much gas he really does still have left in the tank. Chicago may give him the Tim Duncan treatment this year in terms of regular season playing time and saving him for the postseason, but he’s going to have a huge impact on a team that could use some veteran leadership with both Gasol and Noah gone to greener pastures. There’s a very good chance that announcer Tommy Edwards announces Wade “from Chicago!” during the starting lineups, just like he use to do with Rose, and there’s also a very good chance that fans are going to eat that up like wedding appetizers. Wade should make this a fun season for Bulls fans, no matter the final record.

– Joel Brigham

SALARY CAP 101

After trading Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks, the Bulls went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to sign Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. Including the non-guaranteed salaries of Spencer Dinwiddie and Cristiano Felicio, the Bulls are at $96.4 million in salary with 15 players. The team still has its $2.9 million Room Exception.

Looking ahead, the Bulls could have sizable spending power next summer, with a projected salary cap of $102 million. Provided Wade opts out of his $23.8 million option for 2017-18, and the team cuts Rondo’s $13.4 million (which is $3 million guaranteed), Chicago could have as much as $55 million in space next July. That assumes the team takes rookie-scale options on Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis and Jerian Grant before November. Tony Snell is eligible for an extension by the end of October.  Nikola Mirotic is likely to be a restricted free agent next summer.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The offense is going to be better this year, particularly from the wing, where Wade and Butler could easily combine for 35-40 points per game. Too many people are writing off the value of star power in the NBA, and Chicago actually has quite a bit of it.

Also, while it is a different team, the Bulls were third in the NBA in rebounding last season, and that’s with Joakim Noah having missed significant time. With more minutes Cristiano Felicio and Bobby Portis could be strong rebounders, and Lopez should help buoy those numbers, too. Plus, Taj Gibson is still on the team, all of which means that Chicago should be just fine on the glass again this season.

– Joel Brigham

WEAKNESSES

Obviously the Bulls’ three best players can’t knock down three-pointers, with Rondo of all people sporting the highest deep-ball shooting percentage of the trio last season. Spacing could very well be a problem, though it’s not a foregone conclusion considering the Bulls do in fact have some respectable three-point shooters on the roster to spread things out. In fact, the Bulls were third in the NBA last season in team three-point shooting at .370.

Without Pau Gasol, low-post scoring is going to be a concern this year, too, and since the team was 22nd in team field goal percentage last year, there’s a very good chance that the offense won’t be as efficient as Hoiberg would like. The Bulls stalled on that end of the floor last year, and while the front office worked to remedy that this offseason, there’s no guarantee this won’t still be a disjointed group again this year, especially with so much roster turnover.

– Joel Brigham

THE BURNING QUESTION

How, exactly, will “The Three Alphas” share the ball in this offense?

If only there were an answer to this question. What we know is that not a single one of these guys is any good at shooting three-pointers, which has become sort of a necessary skill in today’s NBA. To put it into perspective, Butler has been playing pro ball for five years and needs to make another 150 three-pointers just to match what Stephen Curry made last season alone. We know what kind of success the deep ball brings to a team, and it just doesn’t look like any of the Bulls’ best players are going to have any success with it. The high-percentage midrange jumper is not only boring by today’s NBA standards, but it doesn’t make the most of points per possession either.

Chances are very good that defenses will box up on the Bulls and try to keep these guys from doing what they do best. To survive, Chicago’s going to need their three-point shooters to get open and make defenses pay for playing off the three-point line. If guys like Mirotic and McDermott can step up in big ways this year, the spacing concerns might not be as bad as we think.

By that same token, it could also be exactly as bad as we think.

– Joel Brigham

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Williams, Clippers Will Keep Pushing Through

The Clippers veteran guard chats with Spencer Davies in a one-on-one Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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For the second straight year, Lou Williams started his basketball season as a resident of California.

Despite being moved by the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline back in February, it wasn’t a long stay for the 31-year-old in Houston. After bolstering the Rockets’ bench in a big way during their playoff stretch, the organization dealt the veteran guard to the LA Clippers, meaning he was going right back to the City of Angels.

Which begs the question—did he even relocate from his old place?

“Yeah, I moved,” Williams told Basketball Insiders in Cleveland on Friday. “But I ended up moving back into the same neighborhood that I was in, so it was all good.”

The familiarity with the area must’ve been comforting, but playing for three different teams in such a short amount of time can’t be easy. It’s only been 15 games, but he already notices a discrepancy between the two that share the same arena.

“Obviously when you have different people running it,” Williams answered when asked to compare the Los Angeles franchises. “I think the Lakers were in a different space than the Clippers are. The Clippers are a more veteran group, so two completely different atmospheres.”

Winning four straight games to kick off the 2017-18 campaign, the year started out great for he and his new team, but it’s gone downhill in a hurry.

The Los Angeles Clippers are hurting in every way. Literally.

Only halfway through a five-city road trip, they’ve lost eight consecutive games and 10 of their last 11. Key members of their team are absent and they have been plagued by injuries out of the gate.

First, it was international sensation Milos Teodosic who went down with a foot injury in just the second NBA game of his career. Then there’s Danilo Gallinari, whose ailing hip has kept him out of action for two weeks. To top it all off, Patrick Beverley is dealing with a sore right knee that has forced him to miss over a week as well (he’ll reportedly be active on Monday night).

Without the trio, the Clippers are missing a little bit of everything, and Williams is eager for them to return to the floor because of it.

“It’s three starters,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “One guy’s our heart and soul on the defensive end. We have another guy who was leading us in assists and we have another guy who’s second in scoring.

“Three very important pieces of our team are missing. But we have other guys that’s stepping in doing the best job that they can. We’re just falling short.”

Aside from their most recent 15-point loss to the equally struggling Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center, Los Angeles has competed and been in almost every game during the long skid.

In Cleveland, they led for most of the way until midway through the fourth quarter. It was a back-and-forth affair when the Cavaliers struck back, and once the game went into overtime, the Clippers went cold and ran out of gas.

Taking out the element of overtime, the “close game, but no win” trend has been apparent as they attempt to get over the hump for a victory. Williams sees his team battling. They’re just not getting the outcomes they desire.

“Just continue to push,” Williams said of how LA can climb the wall. “We’ll have a couple of guys back this week from injuries.

“We’ve been playing extremely hard giving ourselves an opportunity to win these games and just haven’t been able to finish. Get guys back, just continue to push. We’ll break through.”

If Williams keeps on producing the way he has, especially as of late, that could be sooner rather than later. Over the last five games, the scoring assassin has put up over 30 points in two of them and 25 in another. In addition, he’s averaged over four rebounds, four assists, and more than a steal per game during the stretch.

When asked about what’s made him so comfortable, he kept it simple.

“Just playing,” Williams told Basketball Insiders.” Taking what the defense gives me and try to make shots. That’s it.”

Williams is special when it comes to how much he can impact a game in the snap of a finger. Over the course of his career, he’s one of those guys that have been able to just go off at any given moment.

“Just continue to play,” he said. “Play [as] hard as I can. I never really think about it until after the game. I just go out there, play [as] hard as I can. Put myself in position to score points and live with the results.”

You can recall Williams being an elite sixth man in this league for just about every team he’s been a part of. Whether it was with the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Lakers, Rockets or even with the Clippers now, he’s constantly been a guy to provide a powerful punch off the bench.

With the consistency and the energy he’s provided with second units throughout his career, it’s rather surprising that Williams has only won the Sixth Man of the Year award one time in his career. Having established this reputation, it should only be a matter of time before he’s rewarded again.

That being said, it’s got to be one of his aspirations, right?

“Not anymore,” Williams told Basketball Insiders, admitting he felt slighted in last year’s race. “Nah. Probably had one of the best seasons of my career and finished third, so I don’t really care no more.”

Furthermore, as one of the top sharpshooters the NBA has to offer, he told Basketball Insiders he doesn’t wouldn’t care to participate in the three-point contest, either.

Moving away from the individual side of things, Williams has enjoyed his time with the Clippers for the short time he’s been a part of the franchise.

One good reason is the opportunity to play under one of the league’s most respected head coaches in Doc Rivers, whom he credits has a unique manner of making adjustments.

“Doc is a high basketball IQ coach,” Williams said. “He knows how to break down the game on the fly, which is impressive. A lot of coaches, they make a lot of corrections at halftime or in film sessions. Doc makes them on the fly, which is great.”

Playing alongside two superstars isn’t so bad. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are a pairing that can dominate each and every time they step on the floor. In fact, having those two alone should be enough for the Clippers to get things turned back around.

When the frontcourt duo clicks on a nightly basis and the team returns to full strength, Williams believes that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

“It’s been fun,” Williams told Basketball Insiders of the experience with Griffin and Jordan. “Obviously, we would like to win some games and I think that tide is gonna turn once we get back healthy.

“But these two All-Star guys in this league that’s done an exceptional job for this organization—so it’s been a good time being with these guys.”

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NBA AM: All-Time Biggest Comeback Wins

The Warriors’ big 24-point comeback over the weekend was incredible, but where did it rank all time?

Joel Brigham

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One of the biggest NBA stories of the weekend was the Philadelphia 76ers scoring 47 points against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter Saturday night, only to blow their 24-point lead in fairly embarrassing fashion.

Kevin Durant joked about not being able to lose to Philadelphia for fear for Joel Embiid peacocking on Twitter afterward, while Embiid wrote about taking the loss in stride, adding “blowing a big lead” to their arsenal of experiences to avoid repeating in games to come.

In any event, that 24-point comeback was one of the most impressive comebacks in NBA history, though the good news for the Sixers is that there have been bigger blown leads than their own. Some of them much, much bigger. Heck, the Miami HEAT blew a 25-point lead just two weeks ago, so crazier things have happened.

The following are those crazier things. These are the biggest blown leads in NBA history:

#5 Boston Celtics vs. L.A. Lakers (2008) – By the time Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals had started, the Celtics had taken a 2-1 lead in the series, and the pivotal Game 4 was going to go down in Los Angeles. From the get-go, the Lakers looked like they were going to tie the series with little problem, jumping out to a quick 26-7 lead and finishing the first quarter up by 21 points. The lead got as large as 24 at one point, with L.A. still holding a 20-point lead with six minutes left in the third quarter.

But Boston ripped off a 21-3 run to finish the third quarter, cutting the lead to two and making it a much more exciting game than the first two-and-a-half quarters suggested. Their spirits broken, L.A. lost the game and, eventually, the series.

#4 Utah Jazz vs. Portland Trail Blazers (2010) – The Jazz came into Portland for this February game back in 2010 without starting center Mehmet Okur, whose absence was felt immensely as the Jazz fell into a 25-point deficit, trailing by 23 halfway through the third quarter. After chipping away at that lead throughout the fourth quarter, Utah still faced a four-point hole with just 30 seconds to go in the game, but Deron Williams made a couple of free throws, the Jazz got a stop on the defensive end, and Carlos Boozer put-back a last-second miss to send the game into overtime, where the Jazz put the finishing touches on the remarkable comeback win.

#3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Dallas Mavericks (2008) – The Minnesota Timberwolves in 2008 were not good. Still rebuilding post-Garnett, they had no business jumping out to a massive lead over the much more talented Dallas Mavericks, but that’s exactly what happened. The mediocre Wolves built a seemingly insurmountable 29-point lead, but as it happens, the lead was in fact quite mountable, as the Mavericks ripped into that lead thanks in large part to 24 second-half points by Jason Terry. With a seven-point victory, the Mavericks pulled off an impressive 36-point turnaround, albeit against one of the league’s worst teams.

#2 Sacramento Kings vs. Chicago Bulls (2009) – In one of the most stunning comebacks in league history, the Sacramento Kings rallied from being down 79-44 with 8:50 remaining in the third quarter to demoralize a Bulls team that flat-out didn’t see it coming. Sacramento finished the quarter on a 19-5 run to cut the lead to 19, then got it down to 95-91 with 2:28 left in the game. Rookie Tyreke Evans outscored the entire Bulls’ team 9-3 the rest of the way, and the comeback was complete. All of this was in Chicago, and the city’s fans literally booed the Bulls off the court. Needless to say, that was Vinny Del Negro’s last season as head coach in Chicago.

#1 Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz (1998) – In the midst of a seven-game winning streak, a Jazz team featuring Karl Malone and John Stockton did not enter this contest against Denver in 1998 expecting to fall into a 36-point deficit. The score was 70-36 at halftime with the lead expanding further in the third quarter, but that’s when Utah started to grind their way into the lead behind big nights from Malone (31 points) and Jeff Hornacek (29 points). Despite it being a record-breaking comeback, there was no one big remarkable moment. Rather, the Jazz just dismantled the Nuggets through attrition over the course the second half en route to a truly impressive come-from-way-behind victory.

The fact that teams have come back from deficits this huge is exactly why current NBA teams talk about never taking the foot off the gas. Almost no lead is safe, and that’s the beautiful thing about basketball. Sometimes the momentum shifts, and all that planned Twitter bragging goes right down the tubes. At least in Philadelphia’s case the team on the other end of the comeback was the defending champs.

And as this list proves, it could always be worse.

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NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet

The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Moke Hamilton

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The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.

With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.

We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.

And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.

All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.

What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.

So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?

It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.

* * * * * *

Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.

In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.

The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.

The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.

Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.

Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.

Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.

It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.

The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.

In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.

You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.

* * * * * *

There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.

And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.

If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.

Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.

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